Fourteen doctors puzzled over my symptoms before a fifteenth finally presented the results of an eight-hundred-dollar allergy test explaining my seven years of debilitating digestive issues. I stopped eating everything on the list—basil, oranges, raspberries, artichokes, asparagus, mustard, melon, oregano, papayas, plums, yeast—and I improved. At that time, I anticipated neither the extent of the illness nor the ways it would weave through my existence, influencing what I read and wrote about, and even how I lived my life. But over the years, the allergies have grown so numerous that I can’t even recite the full list for those who inquire. No doctor has ever diagnosed the underlying cause. In my lesser moments, I rage against my allergies, feeling persecuted by my own body. In better moments, I’m more philosophical. I wonder what utility allergies have in life. I wonder at their mystery, their connection to the universe.
Allergies have given me a fraught relationship with food, and, as any illness would, they make me identify with others like me. My favorite co-sufferer is Charles Darwin, who shared not only many of my symptoms but also many of my passions. I like to think of Darwin’s entire life in connection with food, because he brought his scientific brain to something seemingly unrelated, as if he sensed that the rebellions of his body might, in fact, have deep connections to the ideas in his mind.
Upon Darwin’s return to England from his expedition to the Galápagos Islands, South America, and Australia, he suffered from digestive issues (including pain and frequent vomiting) that plagued him for most of the rest of his life, forcing him to remain at home writing—instead of voyaging, socializing, or lecturing. Darwin assiduously recorded his symptoms, documenting his digestive system from input to output. He was a man interested in process, doing what his nature dictated, observing and recording the mystery of his own body. He took a wide range of medicines to no avail; the only relief came from a popular Victorian treatment known as the water cure, which seemed to help. Water cures, offered at spas with supposedly curative water, involved cold baths, wet sheets, and a strict diet. I often feel as Darwin did about his water-cure diet, which forbade, as he complained in a letter to his sister in 1849, “sugar, butter, spices, bacon, or anything good.” In the years since his death, doctors and scholars have speculated over what was wrong with Darwin, presenting evidence for Chagas disease, irritable bowel syndrome, hereditary cyclical vomiting syndrome, Ménière’s disease, Crohn’s disease, anxiety, stress, depression, hypochondria, lactose intolerance, and plain old food allergies. We will probably never know the exact cause of Darwin’s troubles, but we know that, for Darwin, food was more than sustenance. It was by turns antagonist, science, pleasure, work, and impetus for creativity.
Food shaped his entire life.
The arrival of my allergies coincided with the central dividing event in my life: leaving my warm Hawaiian island home for college in northwest Massachusetts, where my nostrils and eyelids froze shut when I walked outside in January. Long before I knew about my allergies, food was a rich and diverse part of my childhood. I grew up with so many fruit trees in my yard—papayas, oranges, lychees, tangerines—that I could always walk outside to get something to eat. The idea that food should grow right outside my window has remained with me. Perhaps because of the contrast between my home state and my adopted state, I became obsessed with trying to be part of the new place. I have worked on organic farms, eaten carrots right from the earth, cooked vegan food with New England hippies, and even tried to harvest my own amaranth by beating the stalks on a sheet in the driveway. I’ve been a gastronomer in the sense that I have loved growing and knowing my food, which has made it easier to accommodate my allergies.
During my freshman year I took a botany class to expand my plant knowledge, but, struggling to function in a new climate and to digest things I did not yet know I was allergic to, I also struggled academically. My botany professor probably thought I was the student least likely to use what little I’d learned, but I’ve carried botany with me through years of farming, hiking, working in botanical gardens and nurseries, and tending my own garden. When I was diagnosed with allergies, botany helped me navigate the aisles of supermarkets, because genetic relationships were a good predictor of additional allergies. An allergy to mustard meant allergies (mild to severe) to other members of that family: cabbage, kale, bok choy. I had to figure out what was related to what. Is turkey in the same family as chicken? Is a sardine a herring? Illness expanded a whole branch of my knowledge: phylogeny, hierarchy, genetics—the substance of Darwin’s breakthroughs, his science, and his life. Illness made me think of how every living thing in the world is related to every other living thing.
Darwin, too, was a foodie in college. Diana Noyce writes in Gastronomica (Summer 2012) that while a student at Cambridge Darwin belonged to a club dedicated to deviating from the standard British fare of pork and beef. He ate squirrels, owls, hawks—anything he could hunt down. Later, on the HMS Beagle, as he voyaged around the world, he sampled iguanas, jaguars, armadillos, agoutis (supposedly his favorite), pumas, bizcachas, and many other species, including countless types of marine life. Darwin once accidentally ate a rare Patagonian ostrich he ’d been seeking for his scientific collection. “Fortunately,” he wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), “the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin had been preserved; and from these a very nearly perfect specimen has been put together.” I can imagine him in the cramped quarters of the ship, painstakingly cleaning, preserving, and labeling the remnants of his meal, licking his fingers as he did so.
In his Autobiography, Darwin described the Beagle voyage as the most important event in his life. It shaped his thoughts not only on the journey but also after he returned home and became seriously and constantly ill. In England, illness forced him to think about food much of the time, often in a negative way. He likely remembered with pleasure the animals he ’d studied and consumed on his voyage, when he ’d literally absorbed the diversity of life into his body. In addition to thinking about finch beaks and seeds, Darwin turned the lens upon himself—and I would go so far as to suggest that Darwin’s own eating influenced his ideas about natural selection, that his food difficulties made him look at every living thing and ask: What feeds you? What made you? What will you become? How does the outside world course through your body? How does life change forms before our eyes?
Food gives rise to ideas.
Darwin was interested in how the food we eat shapes us in body and behavior. He not only ate the animals he encountered on his travels, he observed what they ate. As he documented in Voyage, he “opened the stomachs of several [lizards] and found them full of vegetable fibres and leaves of different trees, especially of an acacia. In the upper region they live chiefly on the acid and astringent berries of the guayavita. . . . These lizards, when cooked, yield a white meat, which is liked by those whose stomachs soar above all prejudices.” Darwin formed a complete chain between himself and these almost inedible berries. He noted a transformation within the lizard, the great utility of the guayavita in creating delicious meat; he, in turn, became something different by eating the lizard. Somewhere in that chain is evidence.
Here is the evidence of my body: produce treated with many pesticides (strawberries, bananas) leads to vomiting; factory-farmed animals cause stomachaches; fatty meat, even some chicken, makes my gallbladder rebel; eggplants set my hands on fire; highly processed foods can be literally hard to swallow, and they wreak havoc on my digestive system when they make it there; as mentioned, my allergies often occur in plant and animal families; some foods cause lesions; most restaurants and absolutely all bakeries are off limits.
About ten years after my initial allergy test, I began to be sick after every meal again. My doctor reran my tests. She told me I had become allergic to legumes (including soy), dairy products, eggs, and sugar—in addition to the long list I’d already been living with. For weeks after the test, I stood in
the aisles of supermarkets and literally cried. I became acutely aware of the lack of diversity in modern agriculture and most grocery stores. Further, the doctor told me not to overdo the things I could eat because if I ate them more than a few times a week I might become allergic to them as well. I had to learn to eat meat after being vegetarian or vegan since I was a small child. Now, whenever I look at any food, I think about whether I can tolerate it—a habit Darwin probably shared, a habit born of long-term allergies and of constantly thinking about food, because deviation from my diet has such drastic consequences.
Darwin repeatedly cataloged connections between food and the bodies of the animals he studied, and his stream of data began to take on a new shape. For instance, a sloth-like creature’s teeth “indicate, by their simple structure, that [sloths] lived on vegetable food, and probably on the leaves and small twigs of trees.” Later, describing a bird, he wrote that its “muscular gizzard [is] adapted for vegetable food.” And Darwin connected the relationship between body and food consumed to bigger ideas brewing in his mind when he famously noted the beaks of the Galápagos finches: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” Food determines the purpose of a life, a being’s place in the world. If the finches of the Galápagos have bodies that dictate what they eat, couldn’t it also be true that my body dictates what I eat and what niche I fill in the universe?
Darwin did not confine his observations to nonhuman animals. He repeatedly noted that the place where people live dictates diet as well. In Tierra del Fuego, “with the exception of a few berries, chiefly of a dwarf arbutus, the natives eat no vegetable food besides this fungus [Cytarria darwinii]. . . . I believe, Tierra del Fuego is the only country in the world where a cryptogamic plant affords a staple article of food.” He observed that the indigenous peoples near Buenos Aires ate a great deal of salt, and he hypothesized that this was due to their primarily vegetarian diet. In contrast, the Spanish Gauchos, who subsisted on meat, did not consume salt in huge quantities. The Gauchos, who led an outdoor life herding cattle, ate what their lifestyle and environment both provided and demanded.
Darwin’s travels let him see firsthand the relationship between our bodies and our diets. The food available in a place shapes the body, behavior, and identity. The body also, in some ways, determines what we eat. It is reasonable, then, to take this food/body connection further, to suggest that our bodies contribute to how we think, and that, by association, food shapes thought.
Darwin carried these observations and connections with him to England, where he sat down to write. As he documented everything he ate, he must have wondered how he was being shaped by his environment, and why his body seemed ill-suited to English food. He must have wondered what purpose his illness served beyond tethering him to the writing desk. Food, and his troubles with it, became directly connected to his creative process, which was a significant component of his science.
Darwin had long been on my radar because of my interest in the history of science, but I never felt a personal connection to his ideas until a 2015 article in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society brought up Darwin’s digestive issues and allergies. “Darwin Diagnosed?” suggested that he was, in fact, lactose intolerant, a condition not understood during his time. On the Beagle voyage, Darwin likely consumed few dairy products, which could have caused greater sensitivity when he resumed his dairy habits; upon his return to England, béchamel sauce spelled disaster. The authors of the article, Anthony Campbell and Stephanie Matthews, take their hypothesis further, noting that the presence of lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose, is an evolutionary marvel, a “niche construction” (and one that developed independently in different parts of the world), because many humans keep it long after they need it as infants, and thus are able to digest milk as adults.
Darwin’s hypothesized illness dovetails with his own intellectual endeavors, almost as though a lack of lactase wrote a message on his cells, telling him to consider evolution: the ways change happens in humans and in the landscape, how we shape the landscape, and how it shapes us. This collision of ideas—allergies and evolution—continues to be relevant and to raise vital questions: If some bodies developed persistent lactase in response to the advent of animal husbandry and dairying, will we change again in this time of a warming planet? Will the human body adapt to extreme weather and the accompanying changes in food? Even if we don’t become genetically different, will we become like the wetland ibises Darwin observed in the desert, making do with scorpions? Will we eat bitter desert fruits and cactus leaves? What will our new diet turn us into?
Seasonal allergies are worsening as a result of longer growing seasons and drastic swings in weather. Food allergies are also on the rise and, I hypothesize, for many of the same reasons: allergies are a phenomenon intensified by the modern world, the industrial revolution, urban living, and climate change—in other words, human activity. Climate change is already affecting agriculture, especially crops such as coffee and grapes. At some point, we will all lose not only coffee and grapes, but many other foods as well.
My allergies mean that I am an early adapter, used to nostalgia for foods I can no longer have.
The Beagle voyage brought home to Darwin the beauty and delicacy of the relationships among plants, animals, humans, and the environment. He noted that the place where each creature lives is unique, life-sustaining, and interwoven with existences we may never understand. Darwin wrote,
The number of living creatures of all Orders, whose existence intimately depends on the kelp, is wonderful. . . . Amidst the leaves of this plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, the otters, seals, and porpoises, would soon perish also; and lastly, the Fuegian savage, the miserable lord of this miserable land, would . . . perhaps cease to exist.
When Darwin ate lizards, he ate everything the lizards had eaten, including the water and the minerals the guayavita berries had absorbed. Our existence depends upon a vast network, one Darwin attempted to see and understand. Something from every bit of soil, water, and air that goes into producing my food ends up in my body, causing reverberations deep in my cells. I seek to understand the human relationship with food, the mystery of it, its future, its past, how we’ll manage to grow what we need when the weather becomes our enemy; Darwin anticipated these questions, though he may not have anticipated the exact nature of climate change and the challenges it would cause for food production.
Darwin’s illness spurred his creative thought about animals and food, evolutionary relationships, and niches. My own illness makes me ask: What is my body fighting? What is in this food—or what happened to this food—that causes me to react?
An allergy is the body’s response to something it sees as hostile or foreign. The word comes from the Greek allos, “other.” A common view is that allergies are the body overreacting to things it doesn’t really need to worry about, but as Dina Fine Maron reported in Scientific American in 2013, allergies could have an evolutionary function: preparing the body for responding to real dangers (e.g., snake venom), and therefore increasing the likelihood of survival. This idea applies to less apparent dangers too: pollen, mold, and pollution, substances sure to fill our human future in increasing amounts. The downside of this system is that even if it often saves lives, it sometimes causes death by overreacting.
A friend of mine, who also suffers from a long list of allergies, says she and I are canaries, harbingers of the future, chirping into the darkness. We are bioindicators, showing that much of our food has become poisonous, even if not everyone has been affected yet. But I think allergies may be both the result of and a preparation for climate change. My friend and I are prepared for the world ahead because we think so much about food, and we are willing to eat anything to which we are not allergic—including snails, crickets, and weeds.
If allergies are a reaction to the “other,” I wonder: If I see through the eyes of my food, if I place myself in its existence, will it decrease my allergies? If I have knowledge beyond a label that says organic and free range, if I have empathy, if I understand the purpose of a life and all its connections big and small, if I understand what is harming bees and other pollinators . . . will I understand what is harming me?
With the onset of my allergies, I began to grow my own food in earnest and with diversity as a priority—lamb’s lettuce, elderberries, cardoons, and many other uncommon plants—in order not to eat particular foods too frequently and thereby develop sensitivities to them. I forage in the woods for mulberries, pawpaws, pecker-fretted apples, and sandy pears. Allergies have impelled me to turn my small plot of land into a menagerie (from the word ménage, meaning “household,” and that is how I think of it). I plant things that provide food for me and for the bees, birds, foxes, mice, bears, coyotes, groundhogs, squirrels, crayfish, and anything else passing through. I have begun the project of making my food a part of my existence and my body, weaving my life and my mind into the place where I live. By eating of the place, I absorb its spirit. My body forms cells out of the ground I walk on. I eat what’s here: dandelion, chicory, daylily, hostas, rose of Sharon, burdock, opuntia cactus—all without a hitch.
I struggle through winter if I don’t put enough by. I pay attention to the seasons, to locations of trees and when they fruit. I wander the woods by my house. I wander the fields, eye level with the bees, sometimes with the ants. I walk in the tracks of the foxes, bears, and coyotes, who have eaten from the cherries before I have. I see their scat filled with cherry pits and marvel that we eat the same things. Eating what they eat, I wonder if I understand them, if I can imagine their lives, inner and outer, their fears, their comforts. What do I want if I am the fox? If I am the bee? Food is no longer other, but me. I draw connections between myself and the dirt, the air, the rain. Things return to their source. I watch the squirrels eat the hickory nuts, and then I eat the squirrels, consuming the hickory nuts they’ve digested, just as Darwin ate the guayavita transformed into lizard’s flesh.
My mind asks; it goes in all directions. What is the purpose of my life? What is the message written in my cells and on the simplest molecules that feed me? It is this: allergies are a way to investigate each component of the food that sustains us; they are woven into the intricate web that binds us to the tiniest beings, to invisible organisms in the soil, to particulates in the air. If we don’t consider these things as part of ourselves and take note of how the world around us is changing, the patterns of survival and adaptation Darwin observed will no longer keep pace with the world we have made and are making. As Darwin observed, with his way of perceiving food as part of a chain of connected changes, the loss of one key species in the kelp forest could also mean the loss of the entire system.